In this no-stone-unturned article we share and review our top choices for the best cold smoke generators you can buy today.
We then go on to explain cold smoking and the difference between it and hot smoking. We also cover some foods you can cold smoke (and some you shouldn’t) and what’s the best fuel to use.
Think about grilling for a second. Are you picturing a hot grill with flames licking delicately at sizzling steaks and juicy burgers?
Most people probably associate fire with outdoor cooking. There’s a reason why the site is called FoodFireFriends, right?
Of course, those of you who like to smoke know there’s way more to the story than just meat, veg, and flames.
Cold smoking is another fun way to make fantastic tasting food. If you’ve decided to give it a try, this article has your name all over it. (Not literally — Cold Smoke is a pretty weird name.)
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Cold smoking is a method for flavoring and preserving food. Historically, it was done to keep perishable food from spoiling back in the days before refrigeration.
The discovery was probably accidental, but it turns out smoke dries food out and introduces antimicrobials and antioxidants. Together, these properties can prevent food from going bad for a very long time.
Smoking can be done on many scales, from a small box to an entire room, but the principal is always the same. A fire burns, or at least smolders, outside the smoking chamber. The smoke passes through the chamber, but there is little to no transference of heat.
Food in the smoke chamber either sits on or is hung from a rack while the smoke envelops and permeates it for hours, or even days.
Over time, people realized that not only was cold smoked food well-preserved, but it also tasted amazing too. Savvy practitioners began experimenting with different types of wood to impart a variety of flavors. Today, cold smoking is still enjoyed around the world, despite the availability of convenient refrigeration.
The Difference Between Hot Smoking and Cold Smoking
Hot smoking is a method for cooking food rather than preserving it. The heat source is much closer to the food than it is during cold smoking. Therefore, the temperature in the smoking chamber is a lot higher, maybe even three times as high.
So, while you might cold smoke cured beef at about 80F, you’d crank it up to about 225F for hot smoking. The higher temperatures get the meat through the danger zone we mentioned before much more quickly, making it perfectly safe to eat once the minimum internal temperature of 145F is reached. (These temperatures are examples only. Different kinds of meat have different requirements for safety.)
What Foods Can You Cold Smoke?
You might be better off asking what you can’t smoke!
So many foods benefit from cold smoking, it’s incredible. If you love smoky flavor, you’ll want to try it on just about everything, but here’s a pretty good list of commonly smoked foods to get you started:
Bacon, beef, butter, cheese, chicken, chili peppers, cream, fish, garlic, ham, honey, ketchup, lamb, lemons and limes, mustard, nuts, olive oil, olives, peaches, salt, sausages, scallops, seeds, turkey, vegetables and wild game.
Best Wood for Cold Smoking
All burning wood creates smoke, but not all of it is suitable for cold smoking. For example, evergreen wood smokes like crazy, but it releases resins when it burns, and these impart an undesirable flavor.
Stick with hardwoods like oak, cherry, apple, cherry, mesquite, and beech. Try different kinds of wood, and various combinations, until you find your favorite.
Now, before you go tossing some logs or large chunks into your firebox, remember that we want smoke, but not a lot of heat.
To do that, the wood needs to smolder slowly rather than burning hot and fast. The best way to achieve this is to use pellets or wood dust. Avoid chips, too. Yes, they’re small, and yes they come in great flavors. But, they burn hot like chunks of wood and are meant for hot smoking.
The Dangers of Cold Smoking
It is essential to understand the potential dangers of cold smoking, it is not the same as cooking it, and that’s the key to understanding what could go wrong if you try to smoke and consume certain foods.
Any food that needs to be kept at or heated to a specific temperature to avoid bacterial contamination is risky business for cold smoking.
Many kinds of meat (particularly beef, pork, and poultry) need to be stored at freezing or near-freezing temperatures and then cooked reasonably rapidly to an established “safe temperature.”
For example, chicken must be cooked to 165F (75C) to be sure it’s safe to eat. Why? Because bacteria that affect food don’t like very cold or very hot temperatures.
Cold smoking uses very low heat to flavor and preserve food, and it does so over extended periods of time. The USDA says the danger zone for bacteria growth is between 40F and 140F (4.5C and 60C). During cold smoking, your food will spend a lot of time resting in this range.
What kind of bacteria are we talking about? Really nasty ones. The list includes, but is not limited to:
That’s kind of a “who’s who” of bacteria you really want to avoid. Of course, anything you could safely eat without cooking and that won’t “go bad” as it warms up is fair game. See the list above for some perfectly safe foods to use in your projects.
If you really do want to try cold smoking uncooked meat, it can be done. First, however, it is essential to cure the meat with curing salts.
Raw fish is an example of a kind of “meat” you can, more or less, cold smoke safely. Sushi is raw fish, and people eat it safely every day. However, the very young, the very old, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system should avoid eating raw fish.
In fact, until you’re certain you have perfected your curing and smoking technique and safety, don’t let anyone who falls into one of those categories eat anything other than non-meat items.
Our Top 5 Tips for Safe Cold Smoking
If you take all the necessary precautions, there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy delicious cold smoked food at home. Here are some best practices for safe cold smoking:
- Use extreme care when handling raw meat
- Find a reputable butcher or farm to supply your meat
- After buying meat, cure it ASAP
- Keep your cured meat cold and store it in a sealed container
- Don’t use random wood you find lying around, including what you find in your own yard — it may have been sprayed with pesticides, or the wood itself may be poisonous
How to Cold Smoke
If you’re new to the concept of cold smoking, and you’d like to know how it’s done, you’ve come to the right place.
There is far more to smoking than we could possibly cover here, but today is your lucky day. We have a Complete Beginners Guide to Cold Smoking you can read to get you started on your smoking journey.
Did we successfully whet your appetite for cold smoked goodies? It’s just one more trick to put up your grilling sleeve and a fun way to flavor food.
If you can’t get enough of that delicious smoky flavor, do yourself a favor and get yourself one of the four best cold smoke generators we’ve discussed in this guide.
Now, if you want to enjoy even more cold smoked goodness, send this article to a friend and see if you can get him or her hooked on it, too. We recommend sharing our articles as often as possible to save yourself from having to eat mediocre barbecue and pretend to enjoy it
Also, we love to hear your stories, your questions, and feedback, so please do drop us a comment below.
We’re looking forward to hearing from you. Until then, thanks for reading!
Happy cold smoking!